How to be creative on the spot

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Creative workers are often expected to offer unique creative insights at a moment’s notice.

“Solve this problem, mockup a prototype, make this work, give me your best idea.” All are familiar phrases tossed at us as creatives.

But how realistic is it to be creative on demand? If you were asked to come up with a worthwhile idea for a book, or painting, or project, right now, could you do it?

Let’s look at what it takes to enable spontaneous creativity and why some people struggle with it while others appear to be capable of doing it effortlessly.

It’s all in your head

A common misconception of creativity is that it’s an innate trait resembling those of our body, like our physical height or eye color. The fallacy is that you’re either born with creative abilities or you’re not.

But creativity isn’t like that. Instead, creativity is a way of thinking. It’s something each of us is born with the capacity to use (and regularly do, without realizing it).

Because creativity is way of thinking, it exists entirely in our brains.

As you may know, within the brain we have hundreds of billions of neurons, all connected to one another through an unfathomable number of biological networks. As we age and grow, these networks grow and change too. Various networks become stronger as we encounter things in the world that become regular for us, like seeing a friend or hearing our own voice. Over time these networks come to represent experiences, stimulus, and thoughts.

Eventually our neural networks are so numerous and so strong that we are rarely surprised at the world around us. We recognize when a bird is a bird, the warmth of a fire, or the sound of a city street. These things all become natural for us because our brains are (very literally) wired to recognize them.

It’s through these connections that ideas form.

Despite popular belief, ideas are complex signals in the brain that reflect many, many things related to one particular experience. You recognize a hot stove not as an ambiguous “stove”, but as the way it looks, the materials it is made of, where it’s located, the various sounds you have come to associate with a stove or a kitchen or a campfire, and so on.

Ideas are then not singular objects in the mind, they are the result of many different stimulus, combined to form a representation of a singular thing (or instance, or experience).

With this understanding we can look at creativity as often the result of changing one or more aspects of what shapes an idea.

This is novel to understand, particularly for anyone who does creative work. It’s too easy to trick ourselves into believing that ideas are singular, simple things that we have to manipulate as a whole to come up with new or alternative uses. Ideas (even the ideas we have of real, tangible, objects) are not solid things, they consist of many different, concepts.

Creativity is then the act of adjusting one or more of the aspects of an idea in order to create a new concept or understanding.

How to generate creative ideas

Creativity readily comes to those who are able to imagine changing any attribute of an idea.

Often the result of such effort isn’t valuable or realistic enough to move past simply thinking of it. But what makes true creative thinkers excel is their ability to think of changing enough attributes of any one idea that eventually something worthwhile comes about.

When it comes to creativity, the more ideas you have, the more likely you are to come up with great ones. We know this is true from countless anecdotes and even scientific research:

“Studies from the University of California Davis and MIT have shown that groups who produce a large amount of bad ideas also tend to produce the most amount of good ideas as well.”

But how can you possibly generate numerous creative ideas on demand?

This is where timeless creative practices come into play. To generate a lot of creative ideas isn’t difficult at all. It merely requires you to actively pursue the unknown and force connections between ideas and their attributes in your mind.

The brilliant Ze Frank (who, if you have never heard of before, you should Google after reading this article) gives us a few strategic examples involving working outside the boundaries we associate with our ideas:

“Generally, when I have an idea I start with a sense of scale. Let’s say Procter & Gamble has a new toilet paper. If I’m trying to generate ideas around it, the first thing I’d do is take a general imagination run into scale. What happens if you have no toilet paper? What happens if you have way, way too much toilet paper? … I flip back and forth between the extremes until something interesting comes out of it… . It’s a super-cool exercise only in that it forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.”

Even with the basic understanding I outlined earlier of how creativity works in the brain, we can see how Ze’s approach to thinking works to generate ideas.

Our instinct is to look at something like a roll of toilet paper and see it for what it is and seemingly always has been (a fairly small roll of thin paper, white, typically found in convenience stores or next to a toilet). By breaking our pre-conceived notion of what toilet paper is, we start to stumble onto potentially creative ideas.

To generate creative insights we must look at the individual attributes of our topic and change any one of them. We do this by asking questions like:

What’s it look like? How does it function? What does it not do? What are the microscopic pieces that make it up? Where is it typically found? How is it often presented? Who usually uses it? Who doesn’t use it? Where will it be in ten years? How does the size of it impact how it works?

Finding the answers to these questions, then asking the same questions of the answers we come up with, then thinking about what would happen if we changed the answer is how we generate creative ideas.

Again: some of the ideas you come up with are undoubtedly going to be crap, but it’s by asking a lot of questions and breaking the boundaries of what you think you know about the aspects of an idea that you’ll be able to think creatively. To quote Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.”

So why do many of us struggle to be creative on the spot, when it’s demanded of us?

One possibly reason is the cognitive stress the command puts on us, particularly how a command to be creative psychologically restricts us.

When we feel pressured to come up with an idea, we psychologically put ourselves into an endless loop of intense focus. We know we have to generate an idea, so we lock ourselves into that task. By focusing so sharply on the task (e.g. “come up with an idea, solve this problem, make me a drawing,” etc.) we fail to step back and see what’s possible by breaking the individual attributes of the task itself.

Of course, it’s possible to overcome psychological barriers to creativity with enough experience, confidence, and know-how. One easy way to break the psychological constraints is to turn your task into a game of play. Play allows us to remove the stressors of the real world while exploring the scope of possibilities.

To be creative on the spot means we simply need to remember that our ideas are the result of many, smaller attributes. Attributes that we can consciously play with by asking questions and wondering how any two concepts can be alike. By breaking our pre-conceived notions around any one of those attributes we are able to generate new, potentially valuable, ideas.

Try generating a creative idea about something you’re working on right now.

Look at all of the attributes of your task, then think of the pre-conceived notions around those attributes and ask yourself what would happen if you made them bigger or smaller, or if you removed them, or if you added to them. Ask yourself what would happen if you replaced the attributes of one idea with those of another. For best results, write your thoughts down as they come to you. Make a list of 50 to 100 possible tweaks to any single attribute of your task. If you’re asking the right questions and looking at all of the various attributes of your pre-conceived idea, creating a list of 100 possible alternatives should be easy.

If you find yourself struggling, consider what matters for having ideas and see if any of the critical components of creativity (energy, mindfulness, curiosity, etc.) might be missing.

Photo by Jan-Erik Finnberg.